Hold It All

Tag: Philip Roth

Knowing and Not Knowing the Global American Berserk

Philip Roth, American Pastoral
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997

…the angry, rebarbative  spitting-out daughter with no interest whatever in being the next successful Levov, flushing him out of hiding as if he were  fugitive—initiating the Swede into the displacement of another America entirely, the daughter and the decade blasting to smithereens his particular form of utopian thinking, the plague America infiltrating the Swede’s castle and there infecting everyone. The daughter who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into  everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the counterpastoral—into the indigenous American berserk. [86]


History is a nightmare I am trying to protect my family from.  No, I don’t even know history, I don’t even know about Vietnam, superficially, yes, as long as it doesn’t trouble me.”  But it troubled Seymour Levov’s teen-age daughter Merry to the point where she became an activist and a terrorist, blowing up a post office and country store, killing a doctor.  This act– “A bomb tells the whole fucking story”—changes the cozy and bourgeois life of Swede and Dawn Levov forever.  They both go on to have affairs, Dawn has a face-lift and wants to forget, naturally, it’s hard waking up to the thought that you gave birth to a murderer; Swede cannot forget, and this book is Roth’s Nathan Zuckerman’s imaginative and sympathetic rendering/account of what their lives must have been like.  Early on, then, Zuckerman as character fades away and is replaced by a strong narrator, omniscient and wondering still, how could the Swede—all-American, fortune-blessed—end up this way. Hence the last lines of the book:

Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life!

And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs? 

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Something I Had in Common with Philip Roth

As I sat there and watched him struggle to go on living, I tried to focus on what the tumor had done with him already. This wasn’t difficult, given that he looked on that stretcher as though by then he’d been through a hundred rounds with Joe Louis. I thought about the misery that was sure to come, provided he could even be kept alive on a respirator. I saw it all, all, and yet I had to sit there a very long time before I leaned as close to him as I could get and, with my lips to his sunken, ruined face, found it in me finally to whisper, “Dad, I’m going to have to let you go.” He’d been unconscious for several hours and couldn’t hear me, but, shocked, amazed, and weeping, I repeated it to him again and then again, until I believed it myself.

After that, all I could do was to follow his stretcher up to the room where they put him and sit by the bedside. Dying is work and he was a worker. Dying is horrible and my father was dying. I held his hand, which at least still felt like a hand; I stroked his forehead, which at least still looked like his forehead; and I said to him all sorts of things that he could no longer register. Luckily, there wasn’t anything I told him that morning that he didn’t already know.

–Philip Roth, Patrimony

Authors for Reading Alongside Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
—Franz Kafka, Letters 

Though for us it’s absurd to cut our brother’s head off only because he’s become our brother and grace has descended upon him, still, I repeat, we have our own ways, which are almost as good. We have our historical, direct, and intimate delight in the torture of beating. Nekrasov has a poem describing a peasant flogging a horse on its eyes with a knout, ‘on its meek eyes.’ We’ve all seen that; that is Russianism. He describes a weak nag, harnessed with too heavy a load, that gets stuck in the mud with her cart and is unable to pull it out. The peasant beats her, beats her savagely, beats her finally not knowing what he’s doing; drunk with beating, he flogs her painfully, repeatedly: ‘Pull, though you have no strength, pull, though you die! ‘ The little nag strains, and now he begins flogging her, flogging the defenseless creature on her weeping, her ‘meek eyes.’ Beside herself, she strains and pulls the cart out, trembling all over, not breathing, moving somehow sideways, with a sort of skipping motion, somehow unnaturally and shamefully—it’s horrible in Nekrasov. But that’s only a horse; God gave us horses so that we could flog them.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

There [Communist bloc] nothing goes and everything matters; here [USA] everything goes and nothing matters.
—Philip Roth, Shop Talk Read the rest of this entry »



I am looking, as I write of Kafka, at the photograph taken of him at the age of forty (my age)—it is 1924, as sweet and hopeful a year as he may ever have known as a man, and the year of his death.  His face is sharp and skeletal, a burrower’s face: pronounced cheekbones made even more conspicuous by the absence of sideburns; the ears shaped and angled on his head like angel wings; an intense, creaturely gaze of startled composure–enormous fears, enormous control; a black towel of Levantine hair pulled close around the skull the only sensuous feature; there is a familiar Jewish flare in the bridge of the nose, the nose itself is long and weighted slightly at the tip–the nose of half the Jewish boys who were my friends in high school.  Skulls chiseled like this one were shoveled by the thousands from the ovens; had he lived, his would have been among them, along with the skulls of his three younger sisters.

–Philip Roth, “I Always Wanted You to Admire My Fasting”; or, Looking at Kafka, in Reading Myself and Others (1973)

Five Thousand Years of Jewish Creativity

I learned Hebrew by dint of much effort. It is a difficult language, severe and ascetic. Its ancient basis is the proverb from the Mishna: “Silence is a fence for wisdom.”…If it weren’t for Hebrew, I doubt whether I would have found my way to Judaism. Hebrew offered me the heart of the Jewish myth, its way of thinking and its beliefs, from the days of the Bible to Agnon. This is a thick strand of five thousand years of Jewish creativity, with all its rises and falls: the poetic language of the Bible, the juridical language of the Talmud, and the mystical language of the Kabala. This richness is sometimes difficult to cope with.

–Aharon Appelfeld, interviewed by Philip Roth in Shoptalk


Appreciating Kafka

The marvelous thing is that the bareness brought him not to self-denial or self-hatred but rather to a kind of tense curiosity about every Jewish phenomenon, especially the Jews of Eastern Europe, the Yiddish language, the Yiddish theater, Hasidism, Zionism, and even the ideal of moving to Mandate Palestine. This is the Kafka of his journals, which are no less gripping than his works. I found a palpable embodiment of Kafka’s Jewish involvement in his Hebrew handwriting, for he had studied Hebrew and knew it. His handwriting is clear and amazingly beautiful, showing his effort and concentration as in his German handwriting, but his Hebrew handwriting has an additional aura of love for the isolated letter.

–Aharon Appelfeld, interviewed by Philip Roth in Shoptalk

Some Things Take Time

I read the following in  2005; Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine came out in 2015:

Ironic essay, novelistic narrative, autobiographical fragment, historical fact. Flight of fantasy—the synthetic power of the novel is capable of combining everything into a unified whole like the voices of polyphonic music. The unity of a book need not stem from the plot but can be provided by the theme….My book is polyphony is which various stories mutually explain, illumine, complement one another.

–Milan Kundera, in an interview with Philip Roth in Shoptalk

Our Father

In the constellation of geniuses, he is a blinding light and father of us all. (I exclude Shakespeare because for Shakespeare no human epithet is enough.)… I think Ulysses is the most diverting, brilliant, intricate, and unboring book that  I have ever read. I can pick it up at any time, read a few pages, and feel that I have just had a brain transfusion. As for his being intimidating, it doesn’t arise—he is simply out of bounds, beyond us all, “the far Azores,” as he might call it.

Edna O’Brien, interviewed by Philip Roth in Shop Talk

James Joyce

LA Woman

Dear Bella Levenshteyn

Got galleys for book and cover proofs.  Going to a cafe early tomorrow morning and see how it looks.

I’d like to be handcuffed to you for six hours, at a bar, free-flowing drinks (White Russians, Black Russians), I-Phone tape recorders herenthere, and let you know how overthetopfunnyitrulyamandhardlyanyoneonearthknowsit, later on to transcribe our EmmaGoldmanSholemAleichemPhilipRothlvervefulvolubility into scores of pages it may take months to figure out WHAT THE STORY IS.Hope you love LA, use sun screen, read serious deep books (Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, 3 volumes), avoid makeup, walk along the ocean send me a picture of you looking glorious.

As Ever in the Present Moment Only Moment


–from work that’s only now just getting revved up, Our Heroic and Ceaseless 24/7 Struggle against Tsuris